New York, Paris, London: Certain cities have a well-deserved reputation for appearing frequently on the itineraries of urban travelers, not to mention at the top of many "Best of" lists. This month, we at Frommers.com want to share with you a few cities that don't get their due, but that are worth a visit; cities with first-rate sports teams or museums and ones with excellent parks, restaurants or casinos. From the Sun Belt to the Rust Belt, from eastern France to western Slovakia, here they are, Frommers.com's favorite underrated cities.
St. Petersburg: A Gem on Florida's West Coast
On the quiet gulf coast of Florida between the Gulf of Mexico and Tampa Bay, a surprisingly liberal gem of a city glistens in the sun. St. Petersburg, a city formerly defined by blue-haired retirees and early-bird specials, has shed its dowdy image in the past decade. Its downtown is undergoing an ambitious program of urban renewal, with shops, galleries and cafes opening among the small-scale buildings and former vacation bungalows. Artists live and work here, and live music is always featured in one corner of the city and ranges from outdoor rock shows to intimate jazz clubs. A day (or more) could easily be spent exploring downtown's new additions and old favorites, one of the most significant of which is the Salvador Dalí Museum (www.salvadordalimuseum.org). Home to the most extensive collection of the painter's work this side of the Atlantic, the museum is a true must-see. Nearby, the St. Petersburg Pier houses the St. Petersburg Aquarium (www.stpete-pier.com), which is a worthy distraction if you have little ones in tow.
The entire downtown enclave is full of laid-back, yet decidedly sophisticated, restaurants. A longtime favorite is the Moon Under Water (tel. 727/896-6160), which serves up wonderful curries and imported lagers on its delightful veranda. For activity-lovers, St. Petersburg has a blessed natural sanctuary, Fort DeSoto Park (www.pinellascounty.org/park/05_Ft_DeSoto.htm), where visitors can bike and rollerblade or kayak and canoe on a network of trails, both on dry land and through tangles of mangrove-lined estuaries. Fort DeSoto is also home to North Beach, a glorious stretch of sand that was rated the top beach in the country in 2005 by Dr. Beach. This, however, is just a tiny sampling of the activities available to visitors. Check out the St. Petersburg city website (www.stpete.org) for more information about attractions, festivals and the latest developments in my favorite underrated city. -- Marc Nadeau
Layover in Lyon
Everyone has his or her favorite stop in France. Tourists flock to Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower. Cinephiles crowd the theaters and cafes in Cannes. History buffs head to the beaches of Normandy. But one destination often left off of an itinerary in France is Lyon, France's third largest city (Marseille is second largest). This omission is a mistake. Situated in southeastern France at the junction of the Rhone and the Saône rivers, Lyon is a stylish and sophisticated city. It attracts and is home to artists, businesspeople, historians and gastronomes, among many others. With close to one million people in the greater metropolitan area, Lyon is an important center of textile production (the silk business is huge here), as well as a banking hub, a site of Roman ruins (Théâtre Romains dates to 17 B.C.) and a culinary mecca. Lyon is home to world-famous cuisine and many of the world's finest chefs studied here at L'Institut Paul Bocuse (the eponymous school of the city's most famous chef). Gourmets and gourmands enjoy the city's excellent restaurants and their regional specialties, such as quenelles and tripe.
In addition to museums dedicated to textiles (Musée des Arts Decoratif), painting and sculpture (Musée des Beaux-Arts), and ruins (Musée de la Civilisation Gallo-Romaine), Lyon has the requisite European architectural beauties -- cathedrals (the Basilique Notre Dame is beyond impressive; www.fourviere.org) and town squares (the Place Bellecour is about as scenic as any communal square in France). This is a wonderful city for walking.
On top of boasting its own attractions, Lyon provides a great jumping-off point for visits to the Beaujolais region, the French Riviera and the Alps. Two substantial train terminals (Gare de Perrache and Gare La Part-Dieu) serve the region with connections to destinations all over Europe. By the way, Lyon is only a 2-hour trip from Paris on the TGV (high-speed train).
The next time you're in France, don't rush from Paris to the Alps or the shore. Stop for a night or two in Lyon. Stroll the medieval and Renaissance streets of Vieux-Lyon, spend some time at the ruins or a museum, and eat in one or more of the outstanding restaurants. I promise you an experience that exceeds your expectations. -- Cate Latting
Meet Me in St. Louis
It's official, sports fans: St. Louis is at the top of its game -- and not just in the world of baseball. This city is the perfect spot for a long weekend getaway and, with a few additional side trips, a fantastic weeklong vacation spot.
Plan to spend several hours exploring Forest Park (http://stlouis.missouri.org/citygov/parks/forestpark), site of the 1904 World's Fair. You can run, bike, or stroll along the trails here, and, if you've got more energy, visit the tennis courts, golf course, boat house, and/or skating rink. Kids will love the park's zoo (www.stlzoo.org). For art lovers, park highlights include SLAM, the St. Louis Art Museum (www.stlouis.art.museum), the Missouri History Museum (www.mohistory.org/content/HomePage/HomePage.aspx) and the Muny (www.muny.org). Art abounds in St. Louis; be sure to visit the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts (www.pulitzerarts.org), the City Museum (www.citymuseum.org/home.asp), and the Contemporary Art Museum (www.contemporarystl.org). If you're ready for refreshment, taste the city's famous frozen custard at Ted Drewes (www.teddrewes.com/Drewes.asp).
Some favorite St. Louis nightlife spots are the Fox Theater (www.fabulousfox.com), Mississippi Nights (www.mississippinights.com) and Blueberry Hill (www.blueberryhill.com), where St. Louis-native Chuck Berry, 80, often plays. You can nurse your hangover the next morning with brunch in the charming Central West End (www.explorestlouis.com/neighborhoods).
For more recommendations on how to plan your trip, as well as some suggestions where to stay and, check out the Frommer's St. Louis guide and go to the official St. Louis, MO, travel and tourism site (www.explorestlouis.com). -- Jennifer Anmuth
Ottawa: Canada's Capital
People often pass up Ottawa in favor of Canada's other major cities, but that country's capital is one of my favorite places to visit. The site of Canada's government and many of its national museums and heritage attractions, Ottawa is also a charming walker's paradise set off a major waterway, with parks and gardens seemingly tucked in every corner. Toss in a newly invigorated dining and nightlife scene, and you have a winning travel destination that's undeservedly flying under the tourist radar.
If history is on your agenda, head straight for Parliament Hill (www.parl.gc.ca), where you can tour the seat of the Canadian government (be sure to stroll behind the Centre Block for a fabulous view of the Ottawa River). If museums are more to your taste, check out the amazing collection of First Nation artifacts and Totem Poles (and two live Mounties) at the immense Museum of Civilization (www.civilization.ca); take in the artistic masterpieces housed in the National Gallery of Canada (www.national.gallery.ca); or visit the unique and moving Canadian War Museum (www.warmuseum.ca). If you want to get outdoors, walk along the Rideau Canal (or skate on it in winter), take a stroll through one of the city's many parks or stop in at the charming cobblestone ByWard Market (www.byward-market.com), the oldest continuing farmer's market in Canada as well as a dining and nightlife hotspot.
Detailing all of the great options available in Ottawa could take pages (the stuff I mention above is only a few of the highlights -- I spent four days here and couldn't get to everything), so for more info on the city, and on hotel and attraction promotions, check out the excellent website run by Tourism Ottawa (www.ottawatourism.ca). -- Naomi Kraus
Few travelers (or, for that matter, travel writers) consider Detroit a Midwestern "destination." The city certainly doesn't have Chicago's global cachet, or Minneapolis's reputation for being squeaky-clean. And indeed, a shrinking U.S. auto industry -- among a number of other factors -- has negatively affected Detroit. Once called the Paris of the Midwest, the city today is a quintessential underdog, a label that the locals relish.
So who would enjoy a trip to The D? For one, hardcore sports fans; in fact, you won't find a better sports town anywhere. There are the resurgent Tigers (www.tigers.mlb.com), baseball's American League champions, who in 2006 routinely played before sell-out crowds at downtown's Comerica Park; the Pistons (www.nba.com/pistons), a perennial force in the National Basketball Association; and the Red Wings (www.detroitredwings.com), who are accustomed to being among the National Hockey League's elite teams and who generally fill Joe Louis Arena. (Incidentally, for all its success in other sports, Detroit is often referred to as Hockeytown.) The Lions . . . well, perhaps the less said the better, though Ford Field (www.fordfield.com), adjacent to Comerica Park, is considered one of the National Football League's finest facilities, with perhaps the best sightlines of any football stadium in the country.
Detroit is also a noted gambler's destination, with three casinos: MGM Grand, MotorCity and Greektown, the latter of which is in one of the city's hippest neighborhoods, where you'll find a gaggle of great coffee shops, bars and restaurants that -- not coincidentally -- serve authentic Greek food. For museum-goers, the Detroit Institute of Arts (www.dia.org) is a must-see; Diego Rivera's Detroit Industry frescoes represent the pinnacle of Mexican muralist art in the States. And music buffs can't resist checking out the Motown Historical Museum (www.motownmuseum.com), site of Studio A, where, among others, Stevie Wonder, the Jackson 5 and Marvin Gaye came to define the legendary Motown Sound.
For recommended itineraries, places to stay and interesting facts about the history of Detroit, visit the city's convention and visitors bureau website at www.visitdetroit.com. -- Matthew Brown
Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, doesn't inspire much love among travelers. Most tours stop for a quick lunch while shuttling between other cities, and the city suffers from a stereotype of being a gloomy, Communist-era throwback. The reality is quite the opposite, and Bratislava is one of my favorite cities in Europe. The city is haphazard, but its many contrasts and multilayered history are part of its charm: Dusty shopping streets run into an immaculate Old Town with its elaborate pastel buildings, public squares, and 21st-century advertisements juxtaposed alongside lovely fountains. I especially love the leafy square of Hviezdoslavorvo Námestie, which boasts elegant embassies and the impressive Slovak National Theater (www.bratislava-city.sk/slovak-national-theatre). Markets are bustling and lively, yet you can still wander the quiet, picturesque streets around Bratislava Castle and feel as if the city is your own secret discovery.
Bratislava has seen an influx of young people settling there to live or study, which has given the city an exuberant, festive vibe. It's also led to new cafes and stylish cocktail lounges cropping up constantly (though the city still has its share of traditional wood-paneled pubs, where you can enjoy pivo and sheep's-cheese dumplings). Bratislava is also home to one of my favorite vegetarian restaurants, the creatively-named Vegetarian (Laurinská 8). Best of all, the city is still cheap and comparatively free of tourists, which is especially refreshing in the summertime when cities like Prague become clogged. If you're lucky enough to be there during a snowstorm, one of the best activities around is sledding along with Slovak kids down the hill next to the castle. Bratislava is in easy proximity to Vienna, about 45 minutes by train; however, I recommend you take the scenic route, via hydrofoil on the Danube. Economy airlines such as Ryanair now run flights from London for as low as £10 each way, so go visit now, before Bratislava loses its status as a below-the-radar destination. -- Jamie Ehrlich
Cleveland Rocks -- Seriously
Last summer, when I announced to the world that I was visiting Cleveland, Ohio, the most common reactions were surprise, confusion and pity. One friend covered all three with two words: "Cleveland? Why?" Cleveland, it seems, has developed that rare reputation for being both seedy and boring.
Sadly, the city's bad rap is not entirely unfounded. Once one of the country's industrial capitals, Cleveland never fully recovered from the steel manufacturing slump of the 1960s. In 1969, its Cuyahoga River famously caught on fire (a river! on fire!) due to pollution; in 2006 it was rated one of the poorest major cities in the U.S.
And yet in 2005, the Economist ranked Cleveland as one of the most livable places in America: Somehow it took a British magazine to notice how much the city that inspired American Splendor (both the film and comic book series portray Cleveland as a city rife with decaying neighborhoods) has improved recently.
Poor in cash but rich in attractions, Cleveland boasts a beautiful university district, home to Case Western Reserve University and the world-class Cleveland Museum of Art (www.clevelandart.org); a Warehouse District (www.warehousedistrict.org) full of hip bars and restaurants; and the Playhouse Square Center (www.playhousesquare.org) -- the second-largest performing arts center in the U.S. Add to this the top-notch Cleveland Orchestra (www.clevelandorch.com), the spectacular Rock & Roll Hall of Fame (www.rockhall.com), and picturesque views of Lake Erie, and you get an American splendor indeed. -- Jennifer Reilly
Southern Culture in Columbia, South Carolina
In terms of underrated, I'd say Columbia, South Carolina, is definitely at the top of that list. Or the bottom. I can't tell which denotes "more underrated." I guess that's in the eye of the beholder, which usually lights on the capital city of the Palmetto State . . . and moves on. Charleston is much more famous and classic and the Grand Strand of Myrtle Beach is where millions go to play.
And Columbia . . . well, I've found reasons enough to keep visiting more than 20 years after I left. People ask why, and it's hard to explain: there's the weather, which is gorgeous in the fall, mild in the winter, and hot Hot HOT and humid in the summer (which is generally when I don't visit). The people are fun and friendly, and the confluence of a huge university, the state capital, Ft. Jackson, and a few large corporations makes for an extremely diverse partying, sports, and cultural scene. Irmo, which is a northeast suburb of Columbia (and home of the Okra Strut; www.irmookrastrut.com), is highly ranked in Best Places to Raise Your Family.
Each time I visit I enjoy old favorite stomping grounds as well as new places, lots of new places: the metro area's population is now pushing 700,000 (nearly twice the size from when I lived there), and along with new development which extends for miles out to Lake Murray, the city has redeveloped some of its older areas. The hottest new area for shops, restaurants, and clubs is the "Congaree Vista," formerly where Civil War-era warehouses moldered down by the river. (The Confederate Mint? Now a Publix Supermarket.)
We were last there in late September/early October, a great time to visit, weather-wise, with the ripping winds of autumn weeks away and not nearly as serious as they are, say on the banks of the Hudson several hundred miles north. The sun shone bright, but not hot, on us, as we headed in from Columbia Metropolitan Airport. We checked in at the Clarion Town House (www.clariontownhouse.com) on Gervais Street, in a building that was once where General Sherman stayed during the "Late Unpleasantries." (Stories differ to this day whether he ordered the town burned, or the Confederate soldiers set fire to cotton bales stored in the street, and high winds destroyed most of Columbia in 1865). Union soldiers did brickbat the statue of George Washington in front of the State Capitol, and broke off his walking stick, which was never fixed, and which is quite smooth on the bottom now.
We like the Town House, which is not one of the newer, more glamorous properties downtown or across the river in Lexington County. It's solid and reliable, with a friendly staff, ("and the sweetest little ol' lady plays the piana for brunch!") We were also there just after a football game because, when the Gamecocks are playing at home, you'll be hard-pressed to find a hotel room in the metro area unless you've reserved well in advance. When USC plays (and in Columbia, "USC" means only one school), the town breaks out the red and black, and whether they are in the humongous Williams-Brice Stadium, or roasting a pig in their own backyards, most of Columbia is hanging on every play and timeout, which makes game day an excellent time to visit a museum or the Riverbanks Zoo and Gardens (www.riverbanks.org).
We headed down to the Five Points area, not far from the USC campus, and an interesting, walkable section of town packed with restaurants, bars, and small shops. My favorite restaurant/bar and bar/restaurant in town are located across the street from each other. Yesterday's Tavern (www.yesterdayssc.com), at 2030 Devine St., has been a hangout for those who like a restaurant that also serves a decent drink (think reporters, college professors, legislators, et. al.) since 1978. When I met up with an old colleague from my newspaper days, he told me that back in the day when his mother needed to get in touch with him, she'd call the bar, and they'd hand him the phone. The regulars had their names engraved on plaques back by the bar (including writers like Pat Conroy and William Price Fox), and up in front, as always, the friendly crew of college-age wait staff ("I get older . . . they stay the same age") continues to purvey sweet tea, Southern favorites, TexMex dishes, and a few starred with "heart healthy" asterisks. Yesterdays has always stayed open late, but in the days when I was closing places down after covering a football game "way out in the country," for a nightcap I'd head just across the street and a few doors down to Goatfeathers, at 2017 Devine St., which is either a bar that serves excellent food, or a restaurant with an outstanding drinks menu. Wine Spectator gave it an Award of Excellence in 2005.
From the classic hangout, Five Points, we headed down toward the river for some dinner and a show in the 21st century hotspot, the Congaree Vista. The folks at Trustus Theater, 520 Lady St. (www.trustus.org) are old friends, as well as the founders of one of the South's best small regional theaters. (By "best," I mean they produced my first full-length play). They directed us about a block away to Gervais & Vine, 620-A Gervais St. (www.gervine.com) for a (small) pre-theater bite. Situated next to a Ribs & Wing House, the ambience couldn't be more different at the Mediterranean wine and tapas bar. We tried three or four wines by the half-glass, and grazed on hot and cold tapas from marinated Manchego Cheese with Thyme and Garlic to Crispy Pan-Fried Chicken Livers.
Then it was back across the street to Trustus, which 20 years ago was a fledgling theater company in an old warehouse, and one of the only visible signs of life in what was then a completely un-gentrified neighborhood. It's a theater where all the seats are recliners, there's free popcorn, and a drink-holder for your beer or soda (not to mention buckets for your bottle of white, if that's your pleasure). It's one of the most highly civilized ways to watch theater that I've yet encountered.
We shopped, ate at a Waffle House, drank a split of champagne on an old friend's front porch as the birds chirped in the trees and we looked out over the gracious, well-kept homes of the Shandon neighborhood. And soon it was time to head back north. We always say we'll be back, and extend an invite to those traveling up Nawth, though a lot of Southerners don't see too much reason to leave their home towns. Still, I expect we'll be toasting with some of them at least once at a Brazilian restaurant in Queens this winter, or conducting them to an Off-Off-Broadway production (where the seats definitely do not recline). Despite that, New York is definitely not underrated. -- Kathleen Warnock
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